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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The plugging of the blown oil well in the Gulf continues to hold. The cement pumped in by BP should dry within the day, but it will be close to a week before the separate relief well finishes the job.

Earlier today, I spoke with retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen. He's the incident commander in charge of coordinating the response to the spill, and by law, he has to work hand in glove with BP. I asked him whether that joint command is too close. Should there be more critical distance between industry and government? Admiral Allen says there are legitimate questions about that.

Mr. THAD ALLEN (National Incident Commander for the BP Oil Spill): There is almost a social nullification of that response model going on right now. And I think it's going to bear some discussion as we move forward, because the assumption is that the responsible party has to be involved in this, because they own the means of production and capacity that you need. The question is how do you maintain autonomy and independence and the oversight responsibilities of the federal government?

BLOCK: And when you talk about - you said social nullification. What do you mean by that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, if BP is writing the checks - and they are - that means they have to have people down there that do procurement, they have to order the goods and so forth. And the question is how do you put all that together to achieve the effect you want, when people are obviously looking at BP with a jaundiced eye, based on the responsible party designation and the fact that, you know, they own the responsibility for this event?

I think it creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of the public to some extent, and that creates a significant challenge for me to manage this event going forward and demonstrate that we can achieve the effects.

BLOCK: Is that an uncomfortable place for you to be?

Mr. ALLEN: I don't know if it's uncomfortable or not, it's where I'm at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: It is the challenge. And frankly, it requires me to interact with everybody. Early on, I had a lot of questions about trust and how do you interact with BP. And the fact of the matter is you cannot achieve a successful outcome in this event without collaboration, cooperation and unity of effort. It is an extraordinarily complex matrix that has to be focused on achieving what we're trying to do for the country.

BLOCK: Do you think the model maybe needs to be rethought, may be not such a good idea to work side by side in the same way?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, there's a dilemma there. And actually, we've had these conversations. You're talking about coffee pot and water cooler talk while you're at the incident command post when you see something like this unfolding. I believe it's going to get looked at, I think it should be looked at.

I don't know if you can ever divorce the responsible party who also has a financial responsibility, under the law, for being involved in some of these operations. There may be a way to distance them through an independent third party or a trustee, if you will. The fact of the matter is the law pretty much dictates how we do this now and that's been the framework for the spill response. But I would expect that nothing will be ruled out as this discussion moves forward.

BLOCK: I want to hear about that water cooler talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, if you don't have the responsible party represented in unified command, you have to have that level of technological competency and expertise that allows you to informed decisions, like when you're going to try a static kill, a top kill.

One of the peculiar things about this response has been the fact that this is one of those things that is catastrophic, the public demands a response, but the main means to control the source lies in the private sector. And that's fairly unusual if you take a look at other things that we do, including hurricane response which are a different model.

BLOCK: So you think there will be some reconsideration of that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think any time you have an incident of this magnitude and there are any doubts at all about how the system perform, you ought to have that discussion. And even if you think the system performed well, you ought to have the discussion to see if it can perform better moving into the future.

I won't be offended by that. And I think pulling this entire response operation through a knothole, if you will, is probably in the best interest of the country and everybody.

BLOCK: And knowing what you know now, from your experience with this, would you say - if you were to advise them going forward - that you had real qualms about this, about the synergy between your role and BP's and who is calling the shots, essentially?

Mr. ALLEN: Actually, I have a pretty good comfort level there, only because I'd been doing this for a long time.

When the Oil Pollution Act was passed in 1990, I was part of the team that implemented that at Coast Guard headquarters. Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to New Haven, Connecticut, where I was the captain of the port and the federal on-scene coordinator for the Long Island Sound in Long Island. And I actually negotiated in situ burning, the dispersant protocols in those local areas.

So I've actually grown up with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. I've actually done responses where I've had the responsible party working with me, knowing full and well when this was done there was going to be an accountability piece, an investigation, civil, criminal penalties, or whatever.

But over the last 20 years, we have learned how to do this. But it is something that is not well-understood or even - sometimes even well-explained in talking to the general public, that you would have the people that appear to be responsible for an event, they're going to have to be crucial in solving the source of spill in this case.

BLOCK: Admiral Allen, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. ALLEN: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Thad Allen is national incident commander for the Gulf oil spill.

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